New director of schools coalition wants to “stay connected” to Tacoma kids

Lucas Smiraldo cares about words. He is a spoken-word poet who performs locally as Vanilla Soul, and he is Tacoma’s poet laureate.

Smiraldo also cares about kids. He is the new director of the Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition.

The coalition’s stated mission is ensuring that students of color and those impacted by poverty graduate from high school, college-eligible and career ready. The group is a coalition of individuals and more than two dozen minority organizations, faith-based groups and education reform groups.

“I want to stay connected to students,” Smiraldo says. “It grounds me, and I think it grounds us, when we see how policy or lack of policy is affecting kids in their everyday lives.”

Vibrant Schools first appeared in the spring of 2011, saying that it wanted to bring a public voice into teacher contract negotiations. Since then, the coalition has become involved in other issues in Tacoma Public Schools.

Smiraldo is not new to the education world. He worked for 14 years as education director at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, and has worked as a grants manager for the Bethel School District. He’s also a member of the city’s human rights commission.

He spoke to The News Tribune recently about his new work.

What do you see as the ongoing relationship between Vibrant Schools Tacoma and the school district?

Our desire is to be a fierce and good partner. And just like in a good family, that means having honest conversations.

What background and skills do you bring to the job?

I have always had an interest in cultural competency. It’s not only been part of my professional career, but it’s also been part of the teachings my mother offered me as an activist Jewish woman. She was somebody who really cared about social change. It’s in my DNA.

Early in the history of Vibrant Schools Tacoma, some critics accused the organization of being an “astroturf” group — grassroots in name only, but actually created to serve the interests of well-heeled contributors with an education reform agenda. Your reaction?

My experience with Vibrant Schools Tacoma is that this is a deeply grass-roots organization. I’m the only paid staff, and I’m half-time.

The people involved put in tons of hours. It happens to be a very sophisticated grass-roots group that does deep work — work you would expect paid staff to do. I would put us up against any grass-roots coalition. I’m very proud of who we are.

What goals do you have for Vibrant Schools?

Our grounding priorities include rigor, culture and climate, and transparency. We are looking to address how do we best support our young people of color and young people impacted by poverty. That issue goes very, very deep.

We have, individually, experienced stories of kids that don’t necessarily feel welcomed in their classrooms or supported. We share their concern. We want to be effective on a broad, meta-level, in bringing about change.

The issue of disproportionate discipline for students of color is a national one. It’s recently been raised by Superintendent Carla Santorno as a priority for Tacoma to address. What’s your reaction?

This is the first superintendent, to my memory, that has been explicit in saying, “This is an issue, this is a problem.” We honor that and we support that conversation.

We need to ask good questions. Sometimes the answers you get aren’t going to be the answers that you necessarily want. But they are the answers that are going to move us all forward.

You said that you believe in student voice. Talk about that a bit.

I have always been better informed when I ask students directly about their experience. It’s rare that I haven’t gained more wisdom and insight as a result of trusting students to share, in their own words.

You are working on an audio anthology about “The Spirit of Place,” as part of your role as the city’s poet laureate. Explain how a project like that might be something that Vibrant Schools could sponsor.

Vibrant Schools could create a radio blog, students could create their own kinds of interviews, explorations. An audio-driven project could really serve youth. Audio has its own strengths. It evokes imagination, listening.